Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Darkest Day

December 21st is the darkest day of the year.

As people who believe in a God who brings hope and joy, sometimes we like to avoid talking about dark days. We like to be optimistic and see God’s goodness in providence. We spout clichés to try to rid the world of its darkness.

The problem with such unrealistic optimism is that, well, it’s just not biblical. The Bible, both New and Old Testaments are heavy with sorrow, heartache, pain, suffering, and all manners of darkness. Our scripture has a whole book of Lamentations, for goodness sake. Mark paints Jesus as a suffering savior. In fact, all the gospels spend a disproportionate time on Jesus’ darkest days. They have Jesus, in the height of his career, proclaiming his demise. They have him crying tears of blood and screaming, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?” They have his disciples persecuted and imprisoned. When we open our Bibles, we find darkness.

It seems to me, that in the face of such darkness, we should not ignore the pain, using smiles and clichés like aspirins. Such medications wear off quickly, and the root of our sorrow will lash out again.
So what are we to do?

We start with being honest with God. We are to remember that Jesus has been through the darkness of the soul and understands what it is like to feel forsaken by God. God understands what it is to lose a loved one…he lost his very own son at the hands of those he sent his son to help. He doesn’t consider our pain as something to brush off. It matters to him.

After we have given voice to our burdens, we then allow Jesus to carry them. Often times we can find ourselves allowing our wounds to stay open, when God is ready to heal us. Finding this balance is hard, but it is giving these burdens to God, that we find resurrection. Resurrection, the greatest joy there is, by its definition must follow death.

So, whatever darkness you are carrying this season, know you are not alone. And know there will come a day of resurrection, a day you will experience joy anew. December 21st is the darkest day precisely because the next day is a little brighter. Darkness may stay longer than we wish, and it may disappear slower than the sunrise on December 22nd, but God is with us, and resurrection is coming.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Worth It

It was fun to have so many of our church community at our house this last Sunday. Afterwards, Nick and I pulled out the hidden laundry that needed folded and started up the washing machine.
 “I’m exhausted,” I said as a flopped down on the chair. “But, I think it was worth it.”
Nick answered, “It was definitely worth it.”

Now if you have hosted at your house you know that exhaustion. All the prep so that everything is just right, down to the towels in the bathroom. And you probably know that feeling of exhaustion afterwards. Sometimes, it seems a little more worth all the effort than others. We have hosted things on both sides of that line. But this was really worth it.

It was worth it for our church folks to get to see all the work put into the parsonage over the last year. From those who had seen it after the new floors, cabinets, and appliance, we heard it looked great with things in it. It is funny how that house they repaired now has become a home, with a personality all its own. Many people came through and said “thank you” to which we said, “actually, thank you” because it was these people who had done the initial work of preparation.

But, the real thing that made it worth it, more than anything else, were two guests. They were the first to come, and the last to leave. They were a k.i.C.k family, a father and his 2nd grade daughter. His daughter scampered upstairs to play with Lydia, while the father found a spot in the living room. As church folk arrived, the room filled to capacity, and while other rooms would empty and fill and empty again as people chatted and moved through the house, the living room would always have people in it. The father would listen to conversations about the house. He would listen to light hearted jokes and the ensuing laughter, and he would discover church. Not the formal experience of Sunday morning, but the shared life that happens among us the rest of the week.
After everyone else had gone, he asked us some questions. He asked us if we had just remodeled the house. That was a fun one to explain. He asked about worship services too. Now I don’t know if he will make it to those services. Lots of people ask, but getting into the habit of Sunday morning is hard. But that asking…that experience of seeing him connect with the body of Christ for two hours and that experience provoking him to a deeper step…that made it worth it.

Jesus told a story that there once was a man who had 100 sheep. Only one of them wondered off. But he left the 99, to find that one.

So for us, that one (or two) was worth it.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thankful for Dysfunction

I am a little behind on my post for Thanksgiving!

Each year my mother’s side of the family gets together. This year there were 32 of us…I think. After we had gotten around the table, my great aunt, the eldest at the table in her 90’s, said “I am thankful that we are not a dysfunctional family” to which some conversation followed. Aunt Eskie revised her statement, “I am thankful that we can all put up with each other’s dysfunction.” We all happily accepted that amendment.

None of our families are perfect, and in the holiday seasons when we are thrown into close quarters, it is inevitable that even in the best of families, there were be frustrations, annoyances, and tongue biting. But God has not called us to be perfect families. He has called us to love others and show grace to each other. He has called us to show grace with each other’s dysfunction, and in so doing receive grace for our own shortcomings.

And when it comes to the church, we sometimes call ourselves a family. It is true that if this is what it means to be family: to love people in the midst of their faults and shortcomings, then maybe the family of God is a good metaphor for who the church is. Like any metaphor, it falls short of being perfect, but it starts to get at the heart of what it means to be together.

I feel blessed by my family to be with people who can live with each other’s dysfunction. I am thankful for the times when we get it right. I am thankful for the times when we get a second chance. I am thankful for not just my blood relatives, but also all those people who have put up with me just the same. And I pray that I will be faithful in doing the same.

I Hate "Stranger Danger"

We went to the store to pick up a few items today, and a kind man engaged me and my two children in a conversation. He showed us his new grandbaby in Palestine on his smart phone’s facebook app. My kids
clung to me like it was the end of the world. Afterwards, I asked them why they didn’t talk when the man asked them their names. My son told me, “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.” It saddened me, that here they were in a safe public place with their mother present and they were afraid. This is why I hate “stranger danger.”

I hate “stranger danger.” I hate that it is promoted by adults as the best way of life, the only way of dealing with outsiders and that adults preach it to children as gospel truth. Here is why:

1.       It is not gospel truth. The truth in God’s law calls us to “love the stranger among you, as you were once a stranger.” The great sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was their inability to do just that. (no, it was not sexual).
2.       It teaches us from an early age to ignore people we don’t know rather than to show kindness to strangers.
3.       It teaches us to fear what (and those whom) we don’t know. The Bible calls us time and time again to abandon fear for hope, love, and peace. We will never know everything, and many of the most important decisions in life are made when we don’t know. That is the heart of faith. Do
4.       It promotes isolation. If we are unable to speak to strangers, we will find we never meet those who will be our new friends, those who will strengthen our support system.
5.       It doesn’t protect our children. What is even worse is those who are most dangerous to them are attracted to fear and avoidance. In karate, we are taught that the most important tools of self-defense are confidence and awareness of those around us. Looking someone in the eye and being direct usually is enough to avoid danger.
6.       I would venture to say that these early lessons have stolen our ability, even in adulthood, to build new relationships. Because of fear we avoid others. As Christians, we can’t share our witness with new people, because we are scared of new people. 

So we should promote something different. These are our family rules around strangers:

1.       When you are with a trusted adult, talk to strangers. There is no way that man would have chance to walk away with my babies without a fight. We were in a safe zone, and kids need to recognize that so they know when they truly are in danger.
2.       When you are lost, seek out a stranger to help you. Avoiding strangers when you get separated from everyone doesn’t help one bit. That is when you need their help the most. Most adults are safe, and they can help you.
3.       When you feel unsafe with any adult, whether they are a stranger or not, scream. Loud.  Talk to another adult, get help. Silence is not the answer. Noise is. 

So, if you see my kids talking to strangers, know that is promoted in our house. Don’t feel they need reminded to be fearful. And remember, you were once a stranger to them. What if they had never talked to you?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Church We Chose

In the winter of 2008, when Lydia was born, Nick and I were not serving in a church, so for the first time as a married couple, we went out church shopping. With my background in a small country church that sang traditional hymns and Nick’s background in charismatic independent churches with guitars rather than organs, you would think it would be hard for us to find something we agreed on. It was not.

We visited a church that was considered the “mega” church of town, with all the glitz that goes along with that title. They had fancy pagers in case our infant needed us and everything looked as though it was renovated in the last three years. We got a mug full of candy and information at the visitor’s table. There was a full band rocking it out in what looked more like a theater than a sanctuary.

We visited a rural church that looked like it hadn’t been renovated in thirty years, too. The music was mainly organ and piano, and the nursery definitely didn’t have the little pager things. There was no screen and projector either. It felt….old.

So where did we go? I know many of you would answer quickly that it was the first. It is after all what a “young family” like ours wants, isn’t it? A full band, a mug filled with treats and information for visitors, it had everything we possibly could want, even a pastor from glamorous California.
A youth from that church, showing our daughter her 4-h cow.

Of course, that is not the church we chose. We chose the small country church. 

Why? Because after worship that first Sunday, some older couples came up and invited us to lunch. They sat across from us at Bob Evans and asked about our lives and families and shared about their lives with us.  Nothing close to this had happened at the big church. It had nothing to do with the pastor. In fact, it had nothing to do with worship. Our whole decision was based on who we thought cared more about us as human beings.

Recently we started planning for 2015 at La Fontaine UMC. We have some great plans; plans for worthy activities and healthier systems. But my prayer is that no matter what we do, we do not neglect relationships. My prayer this year is that we will become the kind of church that people are drawn to because they feel God’s love, because they know we think they are valuable not for what they do, but because Jesus died for them. My prayer is that we will become a congregation that a young family could choose based on our love and care for them as people.